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December 2, 2012
Kentucky's Stoops sets sights on SEC Championship
Mark Stoops wanted to coach at Kentucky. He was drawn to the challenge of the Southeastern Conference, his first opportunity as a head coach, and the chance to build UK into a competitive program.
But more than anything else, he was drawn to the fans.
"I believe in the vision that we have to get this thing done," Stoops said. "We want to be winners. It's going to take everybody. It's going to take all of you that are out here today. It's going to take the administration. It's going to take coaches. It's going to take players. We're all in this thing together.
"To win at the level we want to win at, it's going to take all of us together to get this thing done."
There were fans waiting for him when he landed in Kentucky on Sunday morning. By the time he arrived at Nutter Fieldhouse to formally be introduced as UK's coach, hundreds of fans were waiting. There were former players, big-money boosters, and students all looking for a glimpse of the newly-hired coach.
"So this is what the Big Blue Nation is all about right here," Stoops said. "I've been hearing a lot about it."
Stoops took the job without ever setting foot on campus until Sunday. He reached out to Barnhart -- not the other way around -- shortly after Joker Phillips was fired on Nov. 4.
They met in person for the first time on Nov. 10, less than a week later. They finalized a contract, worth about $11 million dollars over five years plus incentives, on Nov. 26 before Stoops headed to Lexington on Sunday morning for the first time.
He didn't make promises, but set his sights high. Stoops has his eye on resuscitating a program that went 2-10 this season without winning an SEC game and building it into a team that can compete at the highest level.
"To play in the SEC Championship game," he said. "And to win it. Correction: not just to play, but play and win."
That process will start on Sunday night. He left his press conference to meet with the team, and he'll begin evaluating and building his staff on Monday. He said he was close to hiring a defensive coordinator and planned on interviewing offensive coordinator candidates, but declined to go into specifics.
He'll turn his attention to recruiting after that. Stoops said he'll aggressively recruit Florida, where he arrives at UK from, and in Ohio, where he grew up.
He plans on building a staff that can recruit the athletes Kentucky needs to move forward while building on the success the program has found to this point. He hadn't gotten the opportunity to formally meet his current team on Sunday, but several players came out to meet their new coach.
He considers himself a players' coach, but promised hard work and a "blue collar" approach to the job that many coaches before him have struggled to succeed at.
"We'll work every day, be accountable to what we do," he said "Our players will have tremendous character and we're going to win in the institution and we are going to win with a lot of class."
He's already won the support of those above him. Barnhart and Capilouto alluded to facilities upgrades, including work to be done on Commonwealth Stadium, in support of the new coach.
Stoops' plan for the program and his energy were what set him apart in the hiring process, Barnhart said.
"In speaking with Coach Stoops, you feel in a minute that he's a difference maker," UK president Eli Capilouto said. "He's the real deal. He is of character and will build character in our student athletes. I hope you noticed last night at the conclusion of their game how his players gathered around him with deep respect and affection."
He avoided talk about Kentucky's shortcomings in the past and struggles to maintain consistency. He did talk about the future, and the challenges that lay ahead.
"It's a tough conference," Stoops said. "You have to be physical. I think it's of great importance that we develop our strength to be able to compete at this level. We have to go out and recruit. You have to recruit each and every day, each and every year, to keep on building your program."
Stoops, who entered through a tunnel of cheerleaders with the UK band playing in the background, halted mid-answer repeatedly as fans began to cheer.
Asked what was the most appealing thing for him about the job, he said the "Big Blue Nation" grabbed his attention early.
He had their attention on Sunday, beginning the process of winning them over after he'd already won over his new boss.
"We have the greatest fans in all of college sports and the most passionate fan base around and you deserve a football program that competes at a championship level," Barnhart said. "That's what we've hired this guy to do."
He'll start down what he hopes is the road to an SEC championship immediately. He's tasked with taking a program that hasn't won the league since 1976 and turning it into a national power.
But he's confident in the future.
"I feel very good about Kentucky," Stoops said. "I just felt very comfortable visiting with Mr. Barnhart. I feel very confident in Dr. Capilouto, the Board of Trustees, their commitment to taking football to another level. We have everything we need to be successful here. Sure, we want to improve on a few things here and there, but we have what it takes right now to be successful.
"It's our job to coach them, to put them in the right position, to recruit, to develop this program and turn them into a consistent winner."